In Csillag Utca, which intersects with Csapó Utca, lived and worked Mihaly Seres. A two-storey house, like so many around at that time, but at the back, instead of a stable and pigsty, a workshop, a furnace with a tall chimney, a barn used for curing tobacco, a shed where Mihaly and his assistants had the clay delivered in chests, which were then hauled out and the clay was worked by treading on it until the clay became uniformly soft.
The city of Debrecen was famous for its smoking devices, and Mihaly was one of the most skilled pipe makers, as had also been his father, Lajos. It was in Csillag Utca that the famous Seres pipes were created: black, red, white, plated, and ring-mounted. The original design was Turkish, but adjusted to local tastes. The pipe’s bowl was quite high, with a sharply bent reinforced shank into which a wooden stem was inserted. There were simple, but impeccable luxury pipes, or else those decorated with geometrical patterns in relief, embellished with copper details, or sometimes with unusual shapes and finishes. The golden age of pipe makers in Debrecen was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Indeed, as late as in1847 ten million pipes were sold, mostly to France, Great Britain, and North America. Then followed a period of decline. Times had changed, not only due to the widespread fashion of cigar smoking or even of the introduction of the first briar pipes. These much sought-after masterpieces of craftsmanship now had to compete with industrial products, which were certainly less refined, but much cheaper and more suitable to a world that had become frenetic. From the 1860s onwards quite a few local skilled craftsmen gave up the fight, but Mihaly Seres resisted. It was in the 1870s that he realized that he could not compete with the market, but his pride as a skilled craftsman prevented him from selling out and living in the past. Unfortunately, he was found hanging from a beam. However, prior to this tragic gesture he had dug a pit in the courtyard, and placed samples of his whole production. These samples were unearthed a few years ago, and provide a rich source of information on Mihaly’s skills and the great pipe making tradition in Debrecen.
Little is known about similar dramatic events taking place in other parts of Europe between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, we do know that difficult times were had for all traditional pipe manufacturers, albeit with different time frames and the manner in which they occurred. Another dramatic case is that of the mining city of Selmec, also Hungarian. Selmec was the Hungarian name, which became Schemnitz in German at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later Banska Stiavnica when the nation became Czechoslovakian, and finally Slovakian. Pipe production had already emerged in the seventeenth century, again based on the Turkish model, but the height of production occurred in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s pipes appeared that were typical of the local models, with high, faceted or cylindrical bowls; they were also colourful, with shiny surfaces that were richly decorated, recalling the classic Viennese hallmark. Production flourished until the end of the century: Schemnitz pipes were sold all over Europe, but also in North America, Asia and South Africa. Subsequently, manufacturing fell into decline, and many pipe makers closed down their production, or else various moulds and equipment ended up in the hands of one manufacturer, which throughout the century survived until 1954. However, the market in general had gradually shrunk to the local level.
As for the rest of Europe, the golden age had ended for the Dutch as early as the mid-eighteenth century, becoming less and less influential, as was happening with the British white clay pipe makers. As the nineteenth century progressed, the demand for elaborate models decreased in favour of shorter pipes that were quicker and easier to use, produced in series with no frills. Meanwhile, the market was in decline, due to the introduction of cigars, and then cigarettes. The latter had emerged quietly in the mid-nineteenth century, were manufactured industrially from 1880 onwards, and following WWI were speedily adopted. In the 1930s, a few manufacturers of clay pipes dealt with the drop in sales by producing objects in the same material for various uses, such as small pipes for blowing bubbles, or pipes of various shapes and lengths to be used as targets at funfairs. In France, the leading carved pipe manufacturers, Fiolet and Gambier closed down in the 1920s. Bonnard in Marseille, less known but more tenacious, only gave up in 1955.
In the late nineteenth century production of porcelain bowls was still flourishing, as was the production of other pipe parts which were assembled together with the pipe bowls to produce the final pipe. However, their quality was inferior, as in most cases the same illustration was reproduced mechanically on different pipe bowls, and as prices fell transfers were used. Thus, the attraction of the splendid colourful images waned, reducing once-refined objects to mere souvenirs.
The same occurred with Meerschaum pipes, which had been a source of pride for Vienna, but also for Ruhla, Pest, London and Paris. Here again, manufacturing that had once flourished was increasingly poorer in detail until the early twentieth century, when extracting sea-foam from the plains of Eskişehir became increasingly difficult and the rise in price of the mineral created serious problems for many manufacturers. With the advent of WWI supplies almost ceased, and after the war picked up again, but nothing was the same again. An era had come to an end, and tastes had changed in the meantime. Few expert carvers of Meerschaum continued their tradition. In 1961, when the Turkish government decided to export exclusively finished pipes, and no longer just sea-foam, very few continued to produce this most aristocratic of smoking devices.
Likewise, the production of a large quantity of carved wooden pipes produced in the German areas, from Ruhla to Ulm fell on hard times. As the second half of the nineteenth century progressed, it was increasingly clear that briar pipes were superior. A large number of skilled craftsmen had to slow down production or cease altogether. However, not all did so. In Ruhla and Nuremberg, for instance (following the example of Saint-Claude), some craftsmen simply exchanged one material for the other, importing the root from the Mediterranean coast that had become so fashionable.
Indeed, it seemed the most natural thing to do, to adopt briar seeing that the manufacturers in Saint-Claude saw the root as the material that they had always sought. Moreover, the same equipment and the same skills were required to work the material. It was more difficult in terms of difference in material and techniques to pass from working sea-foam to briar, but perhaps not too different, and it was certainly worth it.
Furthermore, whereas reconverting manufacturing pipes from wood to briar meant passing from a difficult material to one that seemed to be tailor-made for pipe making, those who opted for briar coming from the manufacturing of Meerschaum pipes passed from one excellent material to another. Indeed, in most cases manufacturers did not abandon sea-foam at all, at least in the early stages, and preferred to offer their customers a choice between two prestigious options. In a few decades the conversion was completed, and while wooden pipes were a cheap alternative, and Meerschaums became part of a niche market, briar triumphed over all other materials.
Thus, the craftsmen or small and large enterprises that adopted the new material were successful, whereas clay and porcelain pipe makers were less so, unable to cope with the lathe, milling machine, drill, sanding disk and all tools with blades, being more familiar with mixtures, shapes and kilns. Consequently, they were outlived by the new developments in pipe making.
The first pipes to be made out of this extraordinary root were based on models that had already existed. Obviously, no one tried to replicate the cumbersome gestekpfeifen, made out of the assemblage of various components. However, it is also true to say that pipe makers in Western Europe chose to make pipes that were combined in the Turkish fashion, with a briar bowl and stem in ebonite or other material, thus completely abandoning the glorious one-piece pipes of the past. Similarly, the long stems fell out of use, following an ongoing trend. The wealth of decorations remained for a period, as did the creation of pipes with figurative designs. Eventually pipe makers realized that the most beautiful decoration resided in the natural grain of the briar itself. Consequently, new, plainer pipes emerged with few embellishments. This may have had an impact on other types of pipe production: in a late eighteenth-century Meerschaum catalogue, the material of some models is the only thing that distinguishes them from those in briar.
In the early twentieth century in Europe, the fierce competition with cigarettes undermined almost all pipe production. Only one type was successful in its production and preferred by smokers. Manufacturers were reconverted to industrial businesses like those of Saint-Claude, or started from scratch, such as the Italian Rossi in Molina di Barasso. Along with the large companies were smaller companies that adopted more or less refined techniques.
In London from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, pipes experienced a revival thanks to the introduction of a tool that made it easier to light: the match. The pipes were made of clay and later in sea-foam. Briar appeared in the 1860s and by the end of the nineteenth century briar pipes were the most sought-after models, with new manufacturers dedicated to producing them. Whether the companies turned to briar from sea-foam, or else started directly to make briar pipes, they largely paid attention to quality rather than quantity. Companies such as Charatan and Dunhill were the stars of the early twentieth century, and in those years the foundation was laid for the famous London briar pipes. The right atmosphere to define the character and unique nature of the new pipes arose out of the effort of many manufacturers, healthy competition and the constant quest for perfection. This was in order to create a more precise classification of shapes, diversified on the basis of aesthetic qualities and efficient design for smoking. Good pipes were made in France, Germany and in other parts of Europe, but many connoisseurs still looked to London, as had occurred a few centuries earlier.
While in the 1860s briar pipes set out to conquer the world, a new type of pipe emerged in the American state of Missouri, albeit minor, but at the same time “natural”. In about 1868 Henry Tibbe, a carpenter, was inspired by a pipe traditionally used by the Native Indians and pioneers, carved from a corn cob. He improved the design and marketed it. The main alteration consisted in applying scagliola (a type of fine plaster) to the inside of the bowl in order to reduce porosity. The other modifications regarded the aesthetics of the object. The corn cob pipe was to a certain extent quite successful thanks to the figures who sported this pipe. There are still today quite a few admirers. Another “natural” pipe was already well known in the seventeenth century in South Africa. Natives and colonialists smoked tobacco inside a dried-out hollow gourd known as “calabash”. At the time of the Boer War (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) a new “Henry Tibbe” (whose name was really Henry Louis Blatter) tried to improve this traditional device by making it more efficient. In this case it was necessary to intervene from the beginning, through the cultivation of the gourd itself, so that it was forced to grow into the shape of a trumpet. Subsequently, once the gourd was hollowed and dried out, a sea-foam bowl was applied to the widest part and a stem in ebonite was inserted in the other, narrow end. The calabash was equipped with an expansion chamber beneath the bowl in Meerschaum, which produced a smoother, cooler smoke. It was highly popular amongst the British soldiers. At the end of the war the calabash was (and still is) greatly admired in many parts of the world, although it never challenged the supremacy of the Erica Arborea.
Business boomed for the briar pipe in the 1920s and ‘30s, even though smokers were turning to cigarettes, but other types of pipes were in decline. After WWII business continued, but did not thrive as before. In the prevailing energetic atmosphere of reconstruction, permeated even more so by cigarettes, traditional companies experienced economic difficulties, while others started from scratch. During this mood for change, manufacturers who refused to change their “classic” models that were now obsolete could only rely on their old customers, whereas those who dared to innovate attracted new generations of smokers. During the 1960s, a revolution that had been simmering for some time in Denmark started to spread to other countries, perfectly meeting the demand for innovation. Pipe lovers who deemed the old models too old-fashioned went into raptures over such innovative ideas from the masters of freehand carved pipes. First Sixten Ivarsson, to be followed by countless others who relaunched the smoker’s world with daring, meticulous and impeccable ideas. However, it was the numbers of smokers in general that had decreased, and the 1970s heralded a period of difficulty for most pipe manufacturers. It was clear (but perhaps not to all) that in a market that had shrunk the criteria referred to in the past were no longer valid. The remaining customers were discerning enthusiasts, and they called for a wide range of sensations and emotions when smoking their pipes. These demanding clients expected the impossible from those who proposed new smoking models, or perhaps not so impossible seeing that basically they were demanding something that other refined and discerning smokers had called for in various other periods in history: not just an efficient device for smoking, but something that could also be exhibited, worn, admired and handled with great pleasure. Only the pipe makers who understood and accepted this situation have held their own in an increasingly connected world, where differences are blurred and a global sensitivity has emerged that links together markets. Indeed, the Internet enables manufacturers in Tokyo to sell their products in Hungary or Jamaica, or companies in Milan that can reach customers all over the world.
At this point it could be said that the history of pipes, from their origins with the Native Indians to the third millennium, has now come to an end. But is this really so? Perhaps not. There are so many other things to say and explore, as well as the fact that pipes are still developing. One day the thirteenth part will appear.